Teachers as Servant Leaders

Create an environment where teachers can serve and thrive in leadership roles.

In the past, if a teacher took on various leadership roles such as department chair, coach, or curriculum designer, the required time and energy often came with little recognition of being a leader. But what if we provided an atmosphere where teacher leadership could thrive through true leadership roles?

To support the continued development of teachers as leaders, we need to understand how teacher leaders foster positive change in their schools, as we know administrators cannot do it all. Ultimately, the goal is to have a positive impact on school climate and culture, which, in turn, will increase students’ academic achievement and social-emotional development of both faculty and students.

A positive school culture starts with the environment at school. We can set the tone by:

  • Promoting and modeling servant leadership as a way to improve the school;
  • Providing and cultivating mini-leadership opportunities for teachers;
  • Playing an active role in working with teachers and collaborating to define the responsibilities based on school communities’ needs; and
  • Pruning and positioning teachers in their strengths and thus promoting them to such roles.

Promoting and Modeling Servant Leadership

Servant leadership adds value to your school. It’s no secret that maintaining a positive school climate will lead to higher student achievement. Research conducted by professor Gary J. Stewart, Ed.D., has supported that when school leaders, including teachers, approach leadership with a humble and serving bent, this tends to lead to a more positive school climate. Also, teachers feel more valued in a servant leader environment thus leading to teacher retention.

When your teachers feel valued, this trickles down to the students and positively affects their performance in the classroom. It starts with administrators: Model it to teachers so they can better serve their students. Students benefit from this leadership style as their teachers serve them first as people, which leads them into their learning.

What does this look like in action? Administrators are always walking the halls, but instead of walking alone, ask a teacher to join you. On these walks, you informally talk with a teacher, and through this, you listen. As you listen, you focus on their needs and goals because helping others pursue their goals is at the heart of being a servant leader. Remember, you want your teachers to be this type of leader to their students. When your teachers feel that they’re being listened to, they’re more likely to model this behavior in their classroom with their students. You are also modeling respect and building trust, which are traits students need to see in action from their teachers. Your teachers will become more effective and caring leaders as they are empowered by you.

Providing and Cultivating Mini-Leadership Opportunities

The principal should provide mini-leadership opportunities and delegate responsibilities to teachers. It allows them to influence school-wide decisions. According to Erin Schreiner in Houston Chronicle article, “When teachers play a larger role in managing the school, they better understand the rigors of keeping the institution going and feel more involved in the school’s success, likely increasing their commitment.” When teachers feel that their school leaders trust them with assuming leadership roles in various campus-wide projects, they are more likely to engage and provide insight and input into improving the school environment, which will have a positive result in student achievement.

Consider the following scenario: The student achievement data for the last three years have been lagging in all academic areas. Additionally, many experienced teachers who are nearing retirement have been taking early retirement. One of the new teachers participated in a teacher residency program at her teacher preparation program. She reported that she attended her methods courses on the campus where she conducted her field experiences. Because she was familiar with the school climate and culture, she conducted her student teaching there as well. She noticed that the students’ achievement for those with whom she interacted on a continual basis seemed to increase. She approaches the grade level team as well as the school leadership with an idea to implement a similar initiative on site.

Playing an Active Role in Working With Teachers

When administrators have a solid and trusting relationship with the teachers, they will be more inclined to include them in the development of the school’s vision, mission, and strategic planning. In one case study highlighted by Elisa MacDonald in “A School on the Move,” a group of teachers initiated a grassroots effort to create and implement compassion lessons and learning experiences to foster a peaceful school culture and climate. Such collaboration within a school staff can result in improved job satisfaction among teachers and improve overall school outcomes.

Consider this scenario: As the school administrator, you would like to support the district direction in providing opportunities in the classroom for expanding worldviews and global thinking among the students. A teacher on your staff is emerging as a leader using technology tools and apps to support project-based learning. You propose an idea to collaborate with the teacher-leader in creating a more immersive technology supported learning environment at the school. After meeting with the teacher further, you collaborate on a grant-funded opportunity to bring additional technology to the school and train grade-level representatives on implementation strategies.

Pruning and Positioning Teachers in Their Strengths

Administrators can identify specific teachers who might need additional support, work closely with them, encourage them to take advantage of professional development opportunities, and place them in positions where they can hone and sharpen their newly obtained skills, talents, and abilities. MacDonald supports this idea by highlighting how teachers who have expertise in specific topics could be encouraged to lead their colleagues in various initiatives related to their students’ success.

What does this look like in action? For the academic year, the school leadership team along with the grade-level teams have expressed a need to rely on benchmark as well as state-mandated data to inform their curriculum mapping and instruction. You have noticed that two teachers demonstrate a keen ability in analyzing data. So you have designated a specific data room in the office area for collaboration and coaching among teachers. In this space, the two teachers both model data analysis and support their colleagues in using those data to inform curriculum and instruction. This has really empowered those two teachers to assume the leadership role.

It’s up to administrators to set the tone and create this positive school culture, and these four ways will be the key to making this a reality.

Stephanie Knight-Hay is adjunct faculty, College of Education, at Grand Canyon University. Marjaneh Gilpatrick is associate dean, Outreach, Research, and Development, at Grand Canyon University. Tracy Vasquez is assistant professor; Professional Growth and Development chair, Outreach, Research and Development, at Grand Canyon University.